As the film begins and the opening credits roll, we hear a drum beat and a voice passionately urging the spirit of the dead, those who died in Surinam, Brazil, Jamaica, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, to "rise up and claim their bird of passage" (Gerima). The opening sequence ends with a bronze figure of a bird with its head turned backwards, looking behind itself. The source of the drumming is revealed to be an African man, covered in a white ceremonial clay or ash. He is named Sankofa the Divine Drummer, and, as it will be revealed, he believes that his daily drumming is necessary to lead the spirits of those killed in the African Diaspora back home.
The scene shifts and Mona makes her first appearance along the beach, wearing what film critic Andy Spletzer calls "an orange, Tina Turner fright wig". Mona is modeling for a fashion shoot, and her white American photographer is encouraging her to "be more sexy" and to "give me more sex" (Gerima). The Divine Drummer reappears, startling Mona. Sankofa is now dressed in a flowing robe, minus his ceremonial chalked skin. He confronts the model and photographer, chastising them in an African language that escapes the two Americans completely, but that the viewing audience is able to understand through subtitles. Because of the language barrier, Mona is able to dismiss Sankofa in her mind as absurd, and laughs at the old man.
Mona and her photographer resume their
photo shoot, this time with Mona dressed in less revealing clothing. They are no longer along the beach, but are
instead on the upper levels of a castle-like structure. There are tourists
that are passing in the background, and it is through an English-speaking
tour guide that the audience learns more about the setting and about the
motivations of the Divine Drummer.
The location is the Cape Coast of Ghana
and the castle-like structure is the slave fortress known as the Cape
Coast Castle. It was from this place, the second largest slave fortress
The Divine Drummer again confronts Mona and her photographer, berating the two for disrespecting the solemnity of this sacred place. Sankofa tells the white photographer that it was at this fortress that whites humiliated and abused millions of Africans, and that the photographer does not belong there. Sankofa then admonishes Mona, telling her that she does not know where she is from, and pronounces to Mona that she must "go back to her source" (Gerima). Sankofa's words are soon interrupted by armed soldiers who are seeking to preserve the fortress as a tourist destination.
Mona seems less sure of herself and her presence on the island, and begins to follow the tourist group. The tour guide relates to his audience how, at different times, the fortress was controlled by the British, the French, and the Portuguese. As the tour continues, Mona begins to fall behind. A door slams behind her, and the room she is in turns dark. When Mona again finds light, she is standing before a room of silent Africans who are in chains and shackled together. The bound Africans look at Mona, but do not say a word. Mona runs from the chained Africans, towards a closed door, and begins to scream and cry for help. The door is thrown open, only to reveal a courtyard of coarse looking white men. The men grab Mona and begin dragging her towards a fire. As she is being handled, Mona screams I'm an American! I'm not an African!"
Mona has her clothes ripped from her
and, once she is fully exposed, she is branded with a hot iron. Mona has been placed into bondage as an enslaved
African. She has been transported
through time and, as our new narrator, Mona tells us that she is now named
Shola, and she is a house slave on the
About the filmmaker
Gerima moved to the United States to study theatre at Chicago's
Goodman School of Drama. While there, Gerima
realized that the plays he was seeing were either lacking a Black presence
entirely, or cast a few Blacks
in subservient roles (Morris). "In
Gerima relocated to
In 1976, Haile
Gerima joined the faculty at
Hour Glass (1971)
Child of Resistance (1972)
Bush Mama (1976)
Mirt Sost Shi Amit/Harvest: 3000 Years (1975) [In Amheric with English subtitles]
Ashes and Embers (1982)
After Winter – Sterling Brown (1985)
"A White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell"
The title of Minister Louis Farrakhan's 1950's calypso tune seems appropriate for a discussion of religion in the film Sankofa, in part because of the spirit of Black Nationalism shared by both Gerime and Minister Farrakhan, but more importantly for the indictment of the blue-eyed version of Christianity that is used in the movie as a tool to control some of the more susceptible enslaved Africans.
Nowhere is the insidious nature of Western-style plantation Christianity more clearly revealed than in the character of Joe. Joe is the light-skinned son of Nunu. But where Nunu is a leader of the resistence and has used her knowledge of African custom and religion as a source of strength, Joe has rejected Africa, and therefore rejected his mother. Joe considers himself a Bible-fearing Christian, and turns to the plantation minister Father Raphael for guidance. Father Raphael tells Joe to pray harder and to shun Nunu, who Raphael refers to as "that heathen Guinea woman" (Gerima). Joe is frequently seen praying to a picture of the Virgin Mary and Child, in an effort to remove himself from his mother and the other enslaved Africans. Joe retreats to his worship of a white Virgin Mary in order to ease his doubts, while he castigates his own mother.
Like in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God, there is no room for a combination of African rituals and Catholic practices. Father Raphael insists that Joe divorce himself of everything having to do with African rituals. In the view of Raphael, African traditions are "heathen devil-worship" (Gerima).
Much like Oduche in Arrow of God, Joe finds himself losing his own identity as he retreats from his African culture and moves closer to the cross. Gerima and Achebe show their audiences visions of Western-style Christianity in which there is no room for the conscious African. The African must be neutered and stripped of culture before the doors of the church will open. Oduche has to shame his family and his village by attempting to kill a sacred python in order to appease the European priest. Joe must forsake his mother and his African identity in order to appease Father Raphael. But even if these sacrifices are made, it becomes clear to audiences that Oduche and Joe will still be, at best, domesticated savages in the eyes of the priests and the other European colonizers.
Indigenous Elite and the Head slave as the Dogs with the Collar on
In the film Sankofa, while the white plantation owner, Lafayette, and his white overseer, James, are in charge at the plantation, they delegate some of their authority to formen, or head men, who handle the grunt work of surveillance and punishment. These head men, while still enslaved, are charged with walking amongst the field hands distributing beatings liberally in order to keep the workers moving at the pace set by the white overseer. When mass whippings are called for, it is the head man who is required to exert himself in "drawing blood from them black hides" (Gerima), while the white overseer is able to relax and supervise the process of exploitation in relative comfort.
The head slave enjoys better lodging, better food, and the benefits of less strenuous labor. But the advantages that accompany the position of head man all come directly at the expense of the suffering endured by the other enslaved Africans. Each increased comfort that the head man enjoys has been purchased with the blood of his fellow Africans.
During the film, Nunu laments that she experienced nine months of labor just to give birth to a son, Joe, who would be a head man. Nunu makes her pain clear when she remarks that she would rather Joe have died as an infant than to become "a head man for the white man" (Gerima).
Keeping with the philosophy for which his film was named, Gerima has said the he wanted to use "slavery as a landscape" to bring into sharper focus the issues African Americans need to address today. "I see the contemporary echoes of the past. If you look at America as a plantation, then you can codify the different classes and interest groups within the society. You find overseers, head slaves, you find plantation owners in a very advanced, sophisticated way. This is why I felt I had to do the film. I was not interested in the past because it was exotic or brutal. I was very interested in its relationship to the present" (Wright).
While God's Bits of Wood, Arrow of God, I, Rigoberta Menchu, and Don't Be Afraid Gringo all take place outside the historical contexts of true slavery, all three works relate the experience of indigenous people who are caught up in stages of the colonial exploitation process. And in all three written works, as in Sankofa, it is possible to identify characters who are either indigenous themselves or the descendants of indigenous people, who has still made the choice to enlist with the colonial oppressor at the expense of their own culture and people.
In God's Bits of Wood, the Muslim clergy fill this role, preaching the strikers that it is best to accept the domination of the French as part of God's plan (Ousmane 124).
In Arrow of God, the British District Officer, Captain Winterbottom, hopes to use the various villiage priests as agents of European control and colonization (Achebe 57). The British colonial plan of indirect rule requires that Warrant Chiefs be created in each village. The thought is that the Warrant Chiefs will control the village, and the British will control the Warrant Chiefs.
The ladinos that own the land in the Guatemala and Honduras ofI, Rigoberta Menchu and Don't Be Afraid Gringo are ethnically derived from the indigenous Indian peoples that they are oppressing. Insteading of feeling kinship with their fellow Guatemalans and Hondurans, the ladinos oppress the indigenous Indians, and rule over a brutal system of inequality that in part benefits the ladinos, but mostly benefits the businesses of their new colonizer, United States.
Rootless and over-tolerant
There is a striking difference between the representation of plantation life in Haile Gerima's Sankofa and that set forth by Alex Haley's Roots. The enslaved Africans of Haile Gerima's film not only attempt to run away, but also try to rescue other slave, and begin their own society. Most noticeably, Gerima reveals enslaved Africans like Shango who are willing to grab machetes and attack their white oppressors in order to protect each other. Sankofa shows us Africans that have formed their own resistance societies in the hills, and that gather weapons and seeds in an effort to become independent. These defiant ex-slave societies were know as Maroon camps, and audiences are able to witness how the Maroon group that Shango and Nunu belong to stockpiles food and weapons in an effort to use violence to win freedom for those Africans still enslaved on the Lafayette plantation.
and resolution is beyond the enslaved Africans in Roots. The Africans make
attempts to resist the white slave traders during the Middle Passage from
It would be unfair to describe Roots as a film made for white audiences. However, Roots may well have been informed by the sensibilities of the white mainstream. In the view of American audiences then-and likely now-it was better for enslaved Africans to have endured barbarous abuse at the hands of the European plantation establishment, and for those Africans to have suffered and died in non-violent dignity until such time as white society began to aclimate itself with the truth of African humanity.
Few Americans recognize the hypocrisy in celebrating their country's armed revolution over uncomfortable tax representation while begrudging indigenous people their need to defend their culture and humanity against colonial terror and exploitation. With Sankofa, Haile Gerima provides a refreshing interruption against the figment of an unwavering, one-sided, African non-violence.
The Principle of Sankofa versus the Myths of Cultural
Evolution and the Neutral Progression of Time
It is those enslaved Africans that are estranged from Africa that suffer the most on the plantation. Headslaves such as Joe and Noble Ali are rudderless and torn, abusing their fellow Africans on behalf of the white plantation owners. Shola suffers continuous sexual abuse from Lafayette, the plantation master. However, Noble Ali and Shola find certainty, understanding, and purpose through their relationship with Nunu and her understanding of African traditions. If Shola and Noble Ali allow their self-identity to begin with their own birth as slaves, then they are confined as beings intended only for inferiority and servitude. Knowledge of themselves as Africans opens up both characters to the realization of their own humanity and the determination to fight for and reclaim their human dignity. A slave does not fight for freedom, because it subconsiously accepts bondage as a natural state. An enslaved African understands captivity as an unnatural and temporary state against which one must rebel. It is knowledge of self that history and culture provide that heal the wounds and missing identity created by slavery.
There are those Western thinkers that would argue that indigenous culture is savage cuture, and must eventually give way to the superior culture of the European in much the same way that the dinosaur gave way to the mammal. This is a poorly disguised white supremacist argument that not only presupposes the inherent superiority of Western culture, but also removes guilt from the Western agressor. A fiction is created that fault does not lie with the explorer, the missionary, or the exploitative colonizer. The myth of cultural evolution makes use of a disingenous Darwinian shellgame that instead places any fault that does exist upon the colonized indigenous culture for not being fit enough to survive contact with Western culture. The dissolution of indigenous culture and the opression of the indigenous person is seen as part of the inevitable forward progress of time.
The very plot sequence of Sankofa argues against such exclusionary assumptions. Mona, the protagonist, is sent back into in order to "go back to her source" and more strongly identify with her African self. It is this journey back in time that strengthens Mona for her return back to the present at the end of the film.
Progress and manifest destiny for the colonizing Westerner is little more than an oppressive dystopia for the indigenous person. An awareness of history and culture are the tools that allow colonized people the possibility of facing the future on their own terms.
The Snake will have
whatever is in the Belly of the Frog
Gerima phrases his explanation in terms of an assumtion by the Maroons (snakes) of the tools of power that belong to the plantation owner (frog). For Gerima, this uprising of the enslaved Africans is about more than the acquisition of the plantation owner's material wealth. The notion of the enslaved feeding upon the plantation establishment is powerfully metaphoric, but also just and reciprocal.The plantation owner and Western culture has grown fat by consuming the lives, labor, and culture of Africans both at home and in the Diaspora. For a people whose being and way of life were being sacrificed on the alter of modernity and colonial exploitation, to then turn and make plans to feast on their oppressors on any level, metaphoric or literal, then that is the kind of reciprocity and balance that should be sought.
The Displacement of
the Intelligentsia as Interlocutor
Gerima's remarks point to a fascination with the purer quality of truth that comes from the voice and perspective of the common citizen at the bottom of the societal pecking order. My own interest lies in the displacement of the intelligentsia that allows the voice of the common citizen room to be expressed. Knowledge of dependency theory informs us that it is the intelligentsia that often is part of the governing class, belonging to "the upper echelon of the politico-economic hierarchy who have a direct impact on governmental decision-making" (Aybar de Soto). That often places the intelligentsia of a country in a position that is in conflict with that purer source of truth that is the common citizen, as the intelligentsia on some level, are winners in the system that requires the oppression and underdevelopment of the masses. For the elite to continue to win in the status quo, the common citizen must continue to lose. Therefore, any idea for the betterment of society that requires translation from the intelligentsia before it reaches the common citizen, will not reach that citizen intact.
I am reminded of Malcolm X's displeasure
with the 1963 March on Washington. According to Malcolm X, the march began
as a poor people's march to protest the lack of opportunity for the poor
Beyond the ability to hijack marches, it is also possible for ideas to be commandeered, and the switch from the written word to moving pictures helps prevent this.
Filmmaker Haile Gerima
Keeps on Fighting
**The Politics of Black Film
What is at the top of Sankofa the Divine Drummer’s staff?
Who does the tour guide say Sankofa believes he is communicating with when he plays his drums?
As she is dragged away, Mona yells, "You're making a mistake! Stop! I'm not an ____." What is Mona refusing to identify with? How has Mona's perception of her identity changed by the end of the movie?
What does Shola say makes things "easier to accept things like they was"? If the word sankofa has to do with returning to past in order to correct the future, what are we to make of Shola's words?
Why are we told that Shango has never decided to run away? What does this information suggest about the bonds between enslaved Africans
Why does Shango refuse to eat the food that Shola brings to him? Is Shango exercising rebellious pride and rejecting Shola, or is Shango drawing a line between himself and something else?
"A Chat with Haile Gerima". Melanet. 4 April 1996. On line posting. 21 April 2002. http://www.melanet.com/Sankofa/sanchat.html
Alim, Fahizah. "Haile Gerima-Sankofa" The Sacramento Bee. 31 March 1995.
Aybar de Soto, Jose M. Dependency and Intervention:
The Case of
Dembrow, Michael. "Handout on Sankofa". 21 April 2002. http://spot.pcc.edu/~mdembrow/sankofa.htm
Haile Gerima lecture given
Hartl, John. "Fighting to Be Seen". Films.com. 21 April 2002. http://www.film.com/film-review/1994/9366/109/default-review.html
Heath, Elizabeth. "Haile Gerima". Africana.com. 21 April 2002. http://www.africana.com/Utilities/Content.html?&../cgi-bin/banner.pl?banner=Arts&../Articles/tt_822.htm
Iverem, Esther. "Blackbuster: Haile Gerima's D.C.
Johnson, David. "Film on Ethiopian Victory over Colonialism to Premiere in Washington, DC". Africana.com. 5 November 1999. 21 April 2002. http://www.africana.com/DailyArticles/index_19991105.htm
Morris, Ayesha. "Ethiopian Filmmaker Haile Gerima Keeps on Fighting". Africana.com. 29 March 2002. http://www.africana.com/DailyArticles/index_20020329.htm
"The Politics of Black Film Distribution". Occidental College. 21 April 2002. http://www.oxy.edu/~morrisc/sankofa.htm
"Sankofa". Afgen.com. 21 April 2002. http://afgen.com/sankofa.html
Sankofa. Dir. Haile Gerima. Perf. Kofi Ghanaba, Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Alexandra Duah,Nick Medley, Mutabaruka, and Afemo Omilami. Videocassette. Mypheduh Films. 1993.
Spletzer, Andy. "A Slave's Story". Films.com. 21 April 2002. http://www.film.com/film-review/1994/9366/3/default-review.html
Wright, Assata E. "A Return to the Past". Black Film Review. Vol. 8 Issue 13. 1994. 21 April 2002. http://spot.pcc.edu/~mdembrow/sankofa.htm